You Should Be Strengthening Your Hip Flexors, Not Stretching Them
Extra strength = extra support.
Spend some time on FitTok and you’re bound to come across workout wisdom, like the fact that you should actually strengthen your hip flexors instead of constantly stretching them in order to relieve hip pain. This may seem contradictory to everything you thought you knew about muscle tightness, but there are actually game-changing benefits that come from adding a few hip flexor exercises to your strength training routine.
The hip flexors are a group of muscles — primarily the iliacus, psoas major, and rectus femoris — that run along the front of your thigh and bring your legs up towards your body, says Maria Pertile, a master trainer at Club Pilates. “Every movement, from sitting down to standing up, walking, and running, comes from the hip joint where the hip flexor muscles reside,” she tells Bustle.
If you have pain or tightness in your hips, it’s most likely from prolonged sitting with your legs bent, whether it’s while working, driving, or hanging out at home. “By having the hip flexors in this shortened position [and not extended] for long periods of time, they often become tightened or weak,” Pertile says.
While it makes sense to stretch away the pain, studies show that strengthening your hip flexors is actually the better bet, says Pertile, since extra strength means extra support. Here’s what to know about the benefits of strengthening your hip flexors and the best exercises for the job.
Why You Should Strengthen Your Hip Flexors
It certainly makes sense to drop down and move through hip stretches when you have a dull ache that won’t go away. But according to Amy Graber, PT, DPT, a doctor of physical therapy with Fit Family Physical Therapy, the majority of people complaining of tight hips actually have weak or fatigued hip flexor muscles that need to be strengthened, not stretched.
In fact, stretching the area can actually increase the perception of tightness. “When our muscles get fatigued, our nervous system communicates with the muscles to increase muscle tone via low-grade contraction,” Graber tells Bustle. “This contraction is protective for our overworked muscles, as it helps to prevent injury that could occur from over-stretching or overusing a muscle that isn’t functioning at its best. The reality is that the muscle isn’t tight, it’s just tired.”
By doing hip flexor exercises, you can increase the strength in your muscles, which in turn means they’re less likely to get fatigued and contract. “Strengthening may be the most beneficial in the long run,” Graber says. Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stretch your hips, but it isn’t your only remedy. “Frankly, most of us have tight and weak hip flexors,” says certified personal trainer Cody Koontz. “If you only stretch your hip flexors without strengthening them, though, you don't give them the capacity to do their job.”
Other Benefits Of Strong Hip Flexors
Besides relieving that tight feeling, strengthening your hip flexors also improves posture — and all things related to it. “By strengthening your hip flexors, you'll get better postural awareness and endurance,” Koontz says. “And once you have a better awareness of your posture and the ability to correct it, the benefits are endless.”
Strengthening your hip flexors is also key for reducing lower back pain, which has the same underlying issue of tight hip flexors. “The muscles of the low back may be compensating for your weak hip flexors, so strengthening your hip flexors would take some strain off of the low back,” says Koontz.
How To Strengthen Your Hip Flexors
To increase your hip strength and feel less pain, Pertile recommends doing exercises that target the area at least three times a week. Here are a few simple yet effective moves to get you started.
Stand with a resistance band looped under your feet. Lift one thigh up until it’s parallel to the ground and you feel resistance from the band. Hold it for 10 seconds, then slowly lower your foot and repeat on the other side. Aim for 10 reps per side.
Lie on your back. Place a medium resistance band around your feet. Slightly elevate your upper back/neck and support your head with your hands. Alternate kicking your legs out like you’re pedaling a bike. Hold each leg extension out for three seconds to engage your hips. Repeat 10 times per side.
Pilates Toe Taps
Lie on your back and elevate your legs off the floor with hips and knees bent 90 degrees. Keep your spine in a neutral position by pressing it into the floor. Touch your toes down to the floor for six to eight reps. As a progression, straighten your legs, lower, and lift.
Seated Straight Leg Raise
Sit on the floor with one leg extended in front of you. Bend and pull your other leg in towards your glute, knee bent. Lift and lower the extended leg 10 times. Switch and repeat on the other side. Do three sets of 10 per side.
Bridge Hold With March
Lie on your back. Place your feet hip-distance apart. Engage your core and lift your hips up into a bridge. Hold this bridge position steady while you alternate lifting one leg and then the other. Do three sets of 10 per side.
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Maria Pertile, master trainer at Club Pilates
Amy Graber, PT, DPT, doctor of physical therapy with Fit Family Physical Therapy
Cody Koontz, certified personal trainer